An all-Tigers SEC Championship kicks off Saturday afternoon in the Georgia Dome as No. 5 Missouri faces No. 3 Auburn. A national title appearance is on the line if the pathetically slow, boring, and overrated Ohio State Buckeyes lay an egg in the Big 10 championship game.
What a season of impressive turnarounds for these Tigers. Last year, Auburn and Missouri were a combined 2-14 in SEC play. This year, they’re 14-2.
Last year, Auburn fired its head coach and there were rumblings for Missouri to do the same. This year, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn is likely the national coach of the year and Missouri’s Gary Pinkel won the SEC East in just his second year in the nation’s finest football conference.
Last year, Auburn and Mizzou got smoked by rivals Alabama and Texas A&M, respectively. This year, both Tigers returned the favor and secured their passage to Atlanta.
Last year, times were so tough on the plains of Auburn and whatever terrain they have in Missouri that both schools seriously considered discontinuing their football programs altogether.
That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get SEC Banter’s point. These teams have turned their fortunes around, and have done so swiftly.
I’ve always loved turnaround stories and wonder what motivated Auburn and Mizzou this fall. Perhaps Gus Malzahn and Gary Pinkel were inspired by Ronald Reagan’s historic turnaround of the country’s economy and morale in the early 1980s. (Who wasn’t?) Maybe it was Jimmy Buffett’s underrated yet appropriately titled song, Turning Around, featured prominently in the soundtrack of the 1985 film, “Summer Rental.” (Less likely.)
It’s possible that 1989’s sleeper box office hit “Major League” played a major role in Auburn’s and Mizzou’s turnarounds. Charlie Sheen’s performance was inspiring, if not Oscar-worthy, in this classic about a downtrodden baseball team that wins despite all odds.
But deep in my gut, I have to believe the true inspiration for the SEC Championship participants was the undisputed best TV show of the 1980s, Magnum, P.I. After all, if Tom Selleck’s Magnum character wasn’t the classic turnaround artist, I don’t know who was.
(Actually, I’ll confess that Magnum has absolutely nothing to do with turning things around, and even less to do with the SEC Championship. But I could not in good conscience honcho an entire SEC Banter season without gratuitously mentioning my favorite TV show.)
So the SEC Championship is marked by admirable turnarounds. It’s certainly not marked by geography. If you head east to reach the SEC “East” champion, you need to turn around. Missouri’s campus is in Columbia, MO, nearly 400 miles west of the SEC “West” winner’s campus in Auburn, AL. Makes perfect sense.
Auburn’s turnaround has been defined by miracles. First, Auburn miraculously overcame the fact that its head coach is named Gus. If you’re aware of a more successful turnaround by a college football team coached by a guy named Gus, please let me know.
Second, the “Prayer at Jordan-Hare,” Auburn’s desperation Hail Mary that was tipped and fell miraculously into the receiver’s hands for the game-winning TD over Georgia. It was billed immediately as the greatest play in SEC history, until ...
Last Saturday, Auburn’s truly unbelievable 109-yard missed field goal return for the game-winning score over Alabama as the clock read zero.
Auburn fans are uttering phrases like “team of destiny,” and who knows what miracle Auburn will perform next. Perhaps it will award diplomas worth the paper they’re printed on.
Personal foul on SEC Banter! Unnecessary meanness. The penalty will be assessed at the end of this article.
Now to the Tigers of the east that are actually to the west. Mizzou’s 11-1 record proclaims that it belongs in the Southeastern Conference. If you had any lingering doubt about whether Missouri is a true SEC team, I remind you that its best receiver is named Dorial Green-Beckham. You think the Big 12 has receivers with playmaking names like that?
Although Mizzou has only one victory over a team currently ranked in the coaches poll (No. 25, Texas A&M), don’t underestimate these Tigers. They’re for real and have the added benefit of hailing from a state that consistently votes Republican.
The two teams are remarkably similar on paper. Auburn averages 38.6 points per game; Mizzou averages 38.8. Auburn averages 491 yards per game; Mizzou averages 490. The only significant difference appears in turnover margins, with Mizzou coming in at an opportunistic +15 while Auburn is +1.
In the end, intangibles may make the difference. Auburn is essentially a suburb of Atlanta and half of all Auburn grads live there anyway, so expect close to a home game feel in Auburn’s favor. Throw in the team-of-destiny-ludicrous-miraculous-plays factor, and Auburn has some serious mojo heading into the Georgia Dome.
Enjoy the premier championship game in all of college football and I’ll return during bowl season to engage in more banter.
Now to that unnecessary meanness penalty. SEC Banter must drive to Charlotte on Saturday afternoon during the SEC Championship and attend the ACC Championship between Florida State and Duke. A desperate plea to Gus Malzahn and Gary Pinkel: please help me engineer a swift and impressive turnaround.
Ben Prevost is a contributing columnist for The Times. Follow him on Twitter @SECbanter or contact him at SECbanter@hotmail.com.